Interview with Camille T. Dungy on Trophic Cascade — April 25, 2018

Camille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry: Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017), Smith Blue (Southern Illinois UP, 2011), Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010), and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006). Her debut collection of personal essays is Guidebook to Relative Strangers (W. W. Norton, 2017). Dungy edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009),  co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as associate editor for Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade(University of Michigan Press, 2006).
Camille T. Dungy’s honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and a California Book Award silver medal. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Sustainable Arts Foundation, The Diane Middlebrook Residency Fellowship of the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and other organizations. Her poems and essays have been published in Best American PoetryThe 100 Best African American Poems, nearly thirty other anthologies, and over one hundred print and online journals. Dungy is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Christopher Nelson: First let me say thank you for such beautiful poems. When you contrast Trophic Cascade with your previous books, what concerns have remained and what are new? 

Camille T. Dungy: I feel like there is a clear through line between all my books. I have called them survival narratives, and these most recent books also show ways we might survive and thrive through difficult times. Trophic Cascade might be considered my most personal, in that I speak of my own experience directly, less frequently through persona or other lenses. 

Nelson: In your 2010 book Suck on the Marrow, you write about the daily lives of African-Americans in the 19th century, and as you said, in Trophic Cascade, the poems are more personal and the concerns more contemporary, yet the past seeps in; for example, the steward on the airplane crying about the horrors of slavery. I’m curious about how the survival narratives have shifted in their scope and subject as you’ve moved your reader through time.

Dungy: We are always living simultaneously in the present and the past, and the ways we deal with these moments influence our future. I understand poetry to be an adventure in time travel in that as I write I have an opportunity to point to all these realities at once.

Nelson: And despite the remarkable variety of subjects—the birth of your daughter, ars poeticas, environmental catastrophe—the book strongly coheres. How did you decide what to include and what to refuse? 

Dungy: I was much more efficient writing this book than I have been with others. In past books I might have written two discarded poems for every one you see. In this case, though, I think I wrote a lot more slowly (it had been six years since the previous collection), and I demanded a lot of any poem that took my time away from my family. So if a poem ended up being considered complete, it had already earned its position among the others. It was a different sort of drafting process, pulling together this book. 

Nelson: The title poem holds such an evocative idea: that an ecosystem and a single body have parallel fates; the macro and the micro are mirrored. Do you see that poem in unique relationship to the others in the book? 

Dungy: Title poems are always important in that they draw a kind of attention to themselves. When I finished the poem, I knew it would give its title to the book. But that's because the book had already begun to form itself, and I understood the ways in which this poem represented so much of what I was trying to speak to in the collection.

Nelson: In the poem “Trophic Cascade,” and others in the collection, you write about the transformation that comes with motherhood—the old self in one poem described as becoming almost imperceptible. In my reading there is a determination—seen most in the “Frequently Asked Questions” series—to not romanticize motherhood. Does that resonate with you?

Dungy: It absolutely resonates with me. There is a grave danger in representing an experience without its shadows. Shadows give you depth, give you multi-dimensionality. I love being my daughter’s mother, but I would be lying to say the experience isn’t often difficult and doesn’t force me to re-evaluate my own place in the world. This is what poetry does, though. Poetry can show us the beauty in difficult experiences (sometimes that beauty comes only from word play or sonic play, not from the actual narrative set out in a poem), and it also can trouble what might otherwise seem still and uncomplicated waters.

Nelson: Some of your poems are a response to a question posed at the beginning. Why this interrogative form? Does it provide a way into difficult subject matter?

Dungy: In some ways this form isn’t new to me. In Suck on the Marrow I also have several poems where there is some sort of front matter off of which the body of the poem can ricochet. This form is a way to build three-dimensionality (and, therefore, shadow) into my work. In the case of the FAQs, you get the question and you also get my poem. Individually, these components of the poem are doing their own work, but seeing them together gives you the means by which a more acute perception of depth might accrue.

Nelson: One of my favorite poems is “What I know I cannot say,” which is about the immigrant experience and the crucible of Angel Island Immigration Station. Can you talk about the symbolism of the eucalyptus trees?

Dungy: I didn’t think about the eucalyptus trees as “symbolic.” One of the things poetry can do is let the inner reality of something shine through because that thing is placed in proximity of another thing. The eucalyptus trees exist in that landscape. That’s a fact. The history of their presence in California is also a series of facts that I have laid out in the poem. The history of Angel Island, similarly, is a series of facts I’ve laid out in the poem. Placing those two sets of facts in relationship to each other allowed me/us to see parallels that deepen our understanding of both these realities. Does that make sense? I am not placing the eucalyptus in service of the human story, which would subordinate the merit of the eucalyptus narrative in favor of the Angel Island narrative. Rather, I am letting both these stories come into clearer focus because of their proximity to each other in the poem.

Nelson: Thanks for that clarification and sorry for imposing an assumption on the poem. “What I know I cannot say” is one that I keep returning to; there’s something so evocative, open-ended, and troubling about it. Our human story is one of migration, emigration, immigration, displacement, expulsion, and abduction—as well as cohabitation and belonging. Your poem is powerful in that it forces us to think about Angel Island in our contemporary moment, when charged feelings and ideas about who should and shouldn’t be here or there are foregrounded in our national dialog. What do the stories of that particular past tell you about our present?

Dungy: What was it Faulkner was supposed to have said? The past isn’t over. It’s not even past. One thing that writing the books I’ve written has taught me is that none of these things we’ve done to and for and with each other are figments of some “long ago” memory that we aren’t also living inside right this moment, every day. The technology may (or may not) be different, but the basic impulses are always the same. It’s why I’m not shy about writing about history in a moment that needs our attention focused on the present in such a crucial way. Writing about history I am writing about the present. And I’m writing about the possibilities for our future as well.

Nelson: Did your editorial work on the anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry influence Trophic Cascade?

Dungy: I’m sure it did, though I’m not sure I could specifically enumerate all the ways. I can say that the publication of Black Nature opened a door that had previously been closed to many writers of color who had engaged (or might engage) the natural world in our work. The publication of that anthology, in partnership with other ecopoetic work that has flourished in recent years, has shifted views of who is writing environmentally-engaged poetry and how. So, though I don’t think my own writing has fundamentally changed, I am grateful that those who read it are able to be more openly receptive to work like this coming from a writer like me.